Nathan Gregory Silvermaster

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Nathan Gregory Silvermaster
Born(1898-11-27)November 27, 1898
DiedOctober 7, 1964(1964-10-07) (aged 65)
Known forSilvermaster spy ring
SpouseElena Witte aka Helen P. Silvermaster

Nathan Gregory Silvermaster (November 27, 1898 – October 7, 1964), an economist with the United States War Production Board (WPB) during World War II, was the head of a large ring of Communist spies in the U.S. government.[1] It is from him that the FBI Silvermaster File,[2] documenting the Bureau's investigation into Communist penetration of the Federal government during the 1930s and 1940s, takes its name. His wife, Helen and stepson, Anatole Volkov, were members of his ring.

He was identified as a Soviet agent in the WPB operating under the code names Pel,[3] Pal, "Paul"[4] in the Venona decrypts; and as "Robert" both in Venona[5] and independently by defecting Soviet intelligence courier Elizabeth Bentley.[6]


Silvermaster was born to a Jewish family in Odessa, Russia (present-day Odessa, Ukraine) in 1898. He moved with his family to China, where he learned to speak perfect English with a British accent. He emigrated to the United States and earned his B.A. from the University of Washington in Seattle (where he was "stated to be a known Communist") and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where his thesis was entitled Lenin's Economic Thought Prior to the October Revolution. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1926. He was reported to be in contact with a very large number of Communist Party USA officials, and was active in a number of Communist front groups.[7]


Civil service[edit]

From August 1935 to November 1938, Silvermaster worked in the Farm Security Administration. From November 1938 to July 1940, he worked on the Maritime Labor Board. From July 1940 to December 1944, he worked in the Department of Agriculture.

While nominally remaining on the employment rolls of the Farm Security Administration, Silvermaster arranged in 1942 to be detailed to the Board of Economic Warfare. The transfer, however, triggered objections from military counter-intelligence who suspected he was a hidden Communist and regarded him as a security risk. On July 16, 1942 the U.S. Civil Service Commission recommended "Cancel eligibilities ... and bar him for the duration of the National Emergency."[citation needed]

Silvermaster denied any Communist links and appealed to Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson to overrule the security officials. Both White House advisor Lauchlin Currie (identified in Venona as the Soviet agent operating under the cover name "Page"[8]) and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White (identified in Venona as the Soviet agent operating under the cover names "Lawyer";[9] "Jurist";[8] "Richard"[10]) intervened on his behalf. Silvermaster subsequently received two promotions and pay raises.

From 1942 to 1945, he was also assigned to the United States Treasury. In mid-1945, he joined the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (later War Assets Corporation). In March 1946, he resigned from government.

On August 28, 1950, Lee Pressman (a member of the Ware Group, a precursor to the Silvermaster and Perlo) said of Silvermaster, "I believe he was with the Maritime Labor Board when I was with the CIO, and in that connection I may have had some business dealings with him" (apparently referring to Silvermasters time with that union 1938–1940).[11]

Espionage: Silvermaster Group[edit]

Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002), points out: "Every two weeks, Elizabeth would travel to Washington to pick up documents from the Silvermasters, collect their Party dues, and deliver Communist literature. Soon the flow of documents grew so large that Ullmann, an amateur photographer, set up a darkroom in their basement. Elizabeth usually collected at least two or three rolls of microfilmed secret documents, and one time received as many as forty. She would stuff all the film and documents into a knitting bag or other innocent feminine accessory, then take it back to New York on the train."[12] Moscow complained that around half of the photographed documents received in the summer of 1944 were unreadable and suggested that Ullmann receive more training. However, Pavel Fitin, who was responsible for analyzing the material, described it as very important data.[13]

At the War Production Board, Silvermaster was able to provide the Soviet Union with a large amount of data on arms, aircraft, and shipping production. In June 1943, Silvermaster sent a War Production Board report on arms production in the United States, including bombers, pursuit planes, tanks, propelled guns, howitzers, radar and submarines, sub chasers, and the like, to Soviet intelligence.[14] Then, in December 1944, the New York MGB[15] office cabled another Silvermaster report stating: "(Silvermaster) has sent us a 50-page Top Secret War Production Board report ... on arms production in the U.S."[16]

In 1944, Silvermaster was associated with Harry Dexter White at the Bretton Woods conference, and his testimony before the US Senate Internal Security Subcommittee covers "175 pages of interrogation and exhibits" regarding his espionage activities in the U.S.[citation needed]

The Silvermaster spy ring operated primarily in the Department of the Treasury but also had contacts in the Army Air Force and in the White House. Sixty-one of the Venona cables concern the activities of the Silvermaster spy ring. This represents 1% of the total (approx 6,000 cables) and 3% of the (2,000) translated/partially translated VENONA cables.


He died on October 7, 1964, aged 65, possibly in Harvey Cedars, New Jersey.[17][18]


  1. ^ Herken 2002, pg. 88
  2. ^ FBI SilvermasterFile 65-56402 Archived 2012-08-02 at
  3. ^ "1017 KGB New York to Moscow, June 29/30, 1943, pg. 2". Archived from the original on 2008-02-27. Retrieved 2007-07-16.
  4. ^ "888 KGB New York to Moscow, June 9, 1943, pg. 2". Archived from the original on February 27, 2008. Retrieved July 16, 2007.
  5. ^ "1787 KGB New York to Moscow, 19 December 1944, pg. 1". Archived from the original on 27 February 2008. Retrieved 16 July 2007.
  6. ^ FBI Report, Underground Soviet Espionage Organization (NKVD) in Agencies of the United States Government[permanent dead link], October 21, 1946 (FBI Silvermaster file, Volume 82), pg. 12 (PDF, pg. 17)
  7. ^ FBI Report[permanent dead link], op. cit., pgs. 21-23 (PDF pgs. 26-28)
  8. ^ a b Robert J. Hanyok, Eavesdropping on Hell: Historical Guide to Western Communications Intelligence and the Holocaust, 1939-45 Archived 2017-05-15 at the Wayback Machine (Washington, DC: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 2005, 2nd edition), pg. 119 (PDF pg. 124)
  9. ^ "1251 KGB New York to Moscow, 2 September 1944, pg. 2". Archived from the original on 29 November 2007. Retrieved 16 July 2007.
  10. ^ "83 KGB New York to Moscow, January 18, 1945, pg. 1". Archived from the original on November 29, 2007. Retrieved July 16, 2007.
  11. ^ "Hearings regarding Communist espionage in the United States Government". United States Government Printing Office (US GPO). 28 August 1950. pp. 2875–2876. Retrieved 21 October 2017.
  12. ^ Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 46
  13. ^ "Nathan Silvermaster". Archived from the original on 2014-07-27. Retrieved 2014-07-23.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  14. ^ "1017 KGB New York to Moscow, June 29/30, 1943". Archived from the original on 2008-02-27. Retrieved 2007-07-16.
  15. ^ FBI Memorandum L.V. Boardman to A.H. Belmont, FBI Operations of the MGB Residency at New York, 1944-45, November 26, 1957
  16. ^ "1821 KGB New York to Moscow, December 26, 1944". Archived from the original on February 27, 2008. Retrieved 2007-07-16.
  17. ^ "Nathan Silvermaster, Economist Once Accused as Spy, Dies at 65". New York Times. October 15, 1964. Archived from the original on 2014-08-10. Retrieved 2008-06-01. Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, a Government economist who was accused of having been part of a wartime Communist spy ring but never charged, died Oct. 7 at ...
  18. ^ "A Cast of Characters". Time. November 23, 1953. Archived from the original on 2008-12-22. Retrieved 2008-05-31. With William Ullmann as his business partner and housemate, Silvermaster now lives at Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, where he is a building contractor.

External sources[edit]